Gary Wiren remembers the long-ago Sunday drives from his South Omaha home to the scenic hills north of the city.
His family occasionally dared to drive into Omaha Country Club. Past the “Members Only” sign.
“Dad would make a quick loop near the clubhouse and exit before challenged,” said the noted golf instructor, who's 77. “That was my first experience.”
For all of the people like the Wirens in town, their chance to venture inside OCC's gates without apprehension — or being apprehended — is this week's U.S. Senior Open.
“It's a course that I will probably never play,'' said Richard Orth, a public-course golfer from Omaha, “and I am curious to see how an Omaha golf course will hold up for a major championship.”
The wide eyes and dropped jaws will start Monday with the first of three days of practice rounds prior to the 72-hole tournament that concludes next Sunday. Tournament officials expect attendance for the week to top 150,000 spectators for the first United States Golf Association championship in Omaha since 1941.
Why has Omaha Country Club developed a mystique among private clubs in Nebraska topped only by the acclaimed Sand Hills Golf Club and rivaled in Omaha by only Happy Hollow?
Certainly it's the exclusivity. Just the price tag to be a member sets the club apart — an initiation fee of $27,500 that's the highest in the Omaha market.
Few non-members are able to play the course. Guests must be accompanied by one of the club's 460 members. The club holds a limited number of corporate golf outings and fundraising tournaments.
There always is a waiting list for entries when the club hosts a state or local amateur championship. It last held the Nebraska men's match-play tournament in 2010, won by long-hitting John Hurley, and the Nebraska Amateur in 2005. The last Nebraska women's championship there was in 2002.
And then there's its secluded location. Although its western boundary is four-lane 72nd Street, the golf course is hidden from the street. That's not true of other private clubs in Omaha such as Champions Run, Happy Hollow or the now-gone Ironwood.
The entrance road to Omaha Country Club's main gate is a tree-lined narrow lane, of course, called Country Club Road. (This week, the tournament entrance is on 72nd Street. Country Club Road will be off-limits to the public.)
“It's like the road to Oz,'' Omahan Bob Horder said.
The club's tradition, complete with a caddie program, adds to its mystique, longtime club member Tom Olson said.
“We've been around since 1899,” said Olson, who's also a three-time state amateur champion. “Anytime you have that history, there's a lot of tradition, a lot of memories.”
More history will be made this week, five years after the USGA accepted the club's invitation to host the Senior Open. USGA officials had Omaha on their list of potential sites after the success of the 1999 Senior Open in Des Moines. The club spent more than $4 million to upgrade the course in 2006 and was ready to lift the veil for a major event.
“There's always some wanting to keep it open to the membership every day,'' Olson said. “But most everyone was open to this, especially after the success of the Senior Open in 1999 in Des Moines. Many of our members went over there and were treated very well. It opened their hearts to the idea.”
Now that the veil is lifted, what will the galleries find inside the OCC gates?
Start with the forested and hilly terrain. Most trees were there before the course opened in 1926. Club officials found these 240 acres tucked away in the hills several miles north of the first Omaha Country Club course, which dated to 1899 and was located in the Benson area.
There are few places where golfers find flat lies. Many of the dips and rolls in the fairways were as original architect Wayne Stiles of Boston found them in the 1920s, and they were left intact by the course revisions of Perry and Press Maxwell in the 1950s and Keith Foster in 2006. Some holes also have more than 50 feet of elevation change, notably the two par-3 holes on the back nine.
While the Maxwells redesigned only eight or nine greens, Foster held true to their style principles of dramatic contours — nicknamed “Maxwell Rolls” — when he updated all 18.
There's also the stately Tudor clubhouse perched on the hill to the right of the 18th green. The original $175,000 building, designed by Omaha architect George Prinz and opened in 1927, was enlarged and remodeled in 1998. (There will be no public access to the clubhouse during the tournament.)
While it's a rare opportunity inside the club gates for the public, the golf world will be assessing whether the club is a hidden gem in fairway architecture.
USGA officials are convinced it is.
“I was expecting this field of dreams. Boy, was I surprised,” said Jeff Hall, the USGA's managing director of rules and competition. “It's a real gem that the world is going to learn a whole lot more about over the course of the next few months.”
The Senior Open finally fulfills the wishes of Omaha Country Club's leaders from nearly 90 years ago.
Said then-club president Glenn C. Wharton: “We intend to have a course that can accommodate and interest any tournament in the world, bar none.”